Most of the documents that survive about Shakespeare's life detail his business and financial dealings. In this episode we looks at what these documents can tell us about Shakespeare's worth at different points in his life, as well as where he got his money and what happened to it.
Image: The only surviving letter written to William Shakespeare is from Richard Quiney asking for a loan of £30.
This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Dr Robert Bearman, Retired Head of Archives and Local Studies, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Tara Hamling, University of Birmingham
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
Narrator: Jennifer Reid
REID: Hello, and welcome to the eighth episode of “Let’s talk Shakespeare,” a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid and today I’m asking, “How much was William Shakespeare worth?”
This is quite an interesting one, and most of the information and evidence that we have about Shakespeare’s life comes from legal documents and deeds that have survived. Now, people argue that they don’t tell us much about Shakespeare the man and his motivations, but actually, they do and they can tell us a lot more than they first suggest. But there are various difficulties with comparing monetary values over time and the first person that I have speaking today is Liz Dollimore, who is the Learning Manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to summarise some of these problems and kick off the conversation.
DOLLIMORE: It’s terribly difficult to make comparisons between Tudor monetary value and our own currency, and if you work it out for one thing or another, it seems not to carry through proportionally to other things. For instance, the School Master got something like £25 a year, which seems like impossibly nothing but he probably would have got food and housing on top of that. With other things, if you multiply them by say a thousand – saying that a modern school teacher gets around £25,000 a year or perhaps £23,000 as a starting wage – it doesn’t carry through to other things. If you make the same sum for the value of apples you don’t get the same logical answer, so it’s really difficult to say how much he was worth in today’s terms. He was certainly wealthy. After all, he purchased New Place, which was an expensive property. He also made expensive purchases of land within and around Stratford-upon-Avon but those things made him more money because he bought the land and, along with the land, came the right to a percentage of the agricultural profits. He invested and made money. He wasn’t so wealthy that it was kind of impossible, he wasn’t like a modern-day celebrity or a footballer who just has an impossibly enormous bank balance, but he was certainly better-off than your average Joe by quite a way. I should think that the majority of the money that he made was from the land investments. I think that working in the theatre gave him enough to start that process and then the rest of that was probably savvy land investments in Stratford; of which he made two or three in his lifetime.
REID: Liz mentioned there how Shakespeare made his money and what he did with it. When I first started putting this podcast episode together I planned on splitting it up into “How Shakespeare made his money,” “What he did with it” and “Where it went when he died,” but I very quickly realised that these things are all tangled up with each other, so you’ll find that we jump about a bit on the timeline in this episode. So, first of all, let’s think about how he made that initial money to make his investments. Let’s start at the very beginning with his family and their money. Most of us have heard the story of John Shakespeare and his rise and fall, and here is Bob Bearman to tell us a bit about the status of Shakespeare’s family when he was growing up.
BEARMAN: My view of that is that John Shakespeare came from a rural background, he wanted to advance the family’s status and also set himself up in Stratford as a businessman, dealing in glove making and wool dealing. In this he was quite successful – he rose fairly quickly in the civic ranks, filling a number of important posts and then concentrating on being a bailiff or “mayor,” as we call it. Then in the late 1570s, there’s evidence of him falling on hard times. He mortgaged and then sold his real estate, we know that he was pursued for debt by various people and, thereafter, his business seems to have collapsed. My own view of that is that there was a sort of movement against wool dealing in the late 1570s where people were agitating against people who were dealing in virtually illegal wool dealing, and that he overreached himself and didn’t have the credit to tide him over a difficult period. There’s evidence after that that his business dealings virtually disappeared from the records. I mean, there could be other reasons – he could have been ill, of course, but we don’t actually know. He lived into his seventies so he was obviously of quite a robust constitution but my feeling is that he ran into financial difficulties in the late 1570s, just at the time when William Shakespeare was coming into maturity, and that this then had an effect on the kind of thing that Shakespeare could then get involved in. He [William Shakespeare], for one reason or another – we’re not quite sure, didn’t go to university, so this ruled out any career in the Law or in the Church. He wasn’t apprenticed for any trade and, therefore, his options are rather limited. He just seems to have taken off to London and made his living by his pen – first of all, by acting. I suspect that he always got more money from being involved in the theatrical companies as an actor or the sharer than actually he did in writing plays, but he obviously managed to get himself attached to one of the playing companies and built up his career from there. I know that there are other people who think differently but I don’t think that his father helped him. I think his father was in difficult circumstances and only when Shakespeare began to earn some money, is it really evidence of the family fortunes reviving.
REID: Okay, so he didn’t have family money as such. Now, Bob mentioned there that he wasn’t apprenticed and he didn’t go to university, which would have been further hampered by his marriage at the young age of seventeen or eighteen to a much older Anne – this is covered in more detail in episode two of the series, so if you want to find out more about that one, go check it out [Did Shakespeare Love his Wife?]. So we have young Shakespeare: not particularly wealthy, newly married and very quickly having three children – Suzanna, followed by the twins, Hannah and Judith – putting further strain on the family’s finances. So he had to make money somehow and we do know that at some point, after the birth of his children, he packed his bags and went off to London and made his fortune there. But how much did he make? And how did he make it? Bob again, to tell us a bit about this.
BEARMAN: Well, this is a bit of a grey area because there are no financial accounts of the King’s Men and there are no surviving accounts of their income. William Shakespeare became a sharer in 1590 to 1594, which meant that after they’d paid all their expenses, the sharers in the company would get a share of the profits. We know this but as we don’t know the number of performances they put on, the size of the auditorium or how much people were paying, we can’t be sure what that was. People have said that he could have been earning about £60 or £70 a year, at that stage. When they built the globe theatre he became a housekeeper, as well. He became not only a sharer in the profits of the performances but also a sharer in the overall profits of the company. They reckon his income could have peaked at about £200 a year, which would have been a lot of money then, but because there are no surviving accounts, it is a bit of guesswork in a way. Then, of course, this would be £200 in a good year. For quite long periods, especially after 1506, the theatres were closed during outbreaks of plague, so that would have had an adverse effect on his income. So although you might say “in a good year he could have earned £200 pounds,” in a bad year it could have been much less and we don’t know how much less. In a sense, it is a bit of guesswork because we don’t have the accounts.
REID: So, what can we use as evidence?
BEARMAN: These figures have been worked out by Andrew Gough, having looked at accounts for other companies that do survive and the size of the auditorium, which we do know of, and how much other people paid on average, you can get a rough figure – but whatever it is, it’s going to be quite considerably more than he was getting in any other way. What tended to happen was he obviously earned more money than he needed for his immediate purposes, so he was able to invest surplus income or he could borrow on credit and then repay – rather like we do with a mortgage today. He could repay over a period of years out of his profits, so he invested some of his what we call “surplus income.” First of all, he bought New Place, of course, which probably cost him £120 or so. Then he invested in a share in 107 acres of land that cost him £320 (that was in 1602). Then in 1605, he raised £440 to buy a share in the Tithes. That’s getting on for £900 that he was investing to provide himself with an income. At the same time, he was having to buy himself into the King’s Men, and then to become a housekeeper, that would have cost him another £150, say. He was obviously able to raise these sums of money because his credit was good, rather unlike his father who fell foul because he didn’t have the credit.
REID: Bob there gave a brief overview of Shakespeare’s investments and we’ll come back to those repeatedly over the course of this episode. So here we have Shakespeare making money out of the theatre and not just being an actor but being a sharer in the company, too – and that seems to have been where the money was. So was this a standard thing for actors to do? Did any other actors become as wealthy as Shakespeare? Michael Dobson is the Director of the Shakespeare Institute. Let’s see what he said about this.
DOBSON: No, only two others. Johnson gets a steady court income because he, more-or-less, becomes Poet Laureate before the job is officially invented. But he still dies pretty hard-up, being buried standing up in Westminster Abbey (because you buy the burial clock in terms of surface area, so if you don’t mind standing up then you can pay less money in it). But no, it’s very unusual. Thomas Middleton, who worked as City Chronologer and was very prolific, and quite canny, unfortunately, ran afoul of a sensor at the end of his career and, again, seems to have died more or less in hiding without being able to leave much. No, I don’t think there’s anybody else who is quite as good a businessman – as well as being a writer – as Shakespeare, at the time.
REID: Now like I said earlier, how Shakespeare made his money and what he spent it on are inextricably linked. He made some smart investments and he lived in a society where money was invested, borrowed and moved around a great deal. Tara Hamling is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham and she can explain this a bit more.
HAMLING: The question of how much money they [the Shakespeare family] had is interesting. We don’t know very much at all about John Shakespeare or William Shakespeare, so we can’t be very specific. But taking people of their kind of status – middling to upper-middling status – we’ve got documents and accounts for other individuals of that status, which tells us that they’re constantly walking a very difficult balancing act between debt and capital. What they’re doing, basically, is that every time money comes in, it’s going back out again because people at this sort of level are involved in business, they’re involved in a trade. They’re having to buy goods in and support their particular trade or industry, so what they tend to do is to be loaning money out left, right and centre. Any money that they have they put out into action into the world – and that’s a form of capital that is social, as well as economic because it’s in everyone’s interests to keep these business networks going. If you’re working closely with someone, you need them to stay afloat as well as yourself. It is a very complex situation of constantly keeping cash flow moving, so it’s unlikely that there would have been a big stash of money in New Place. It’s more likely that you would put your money to use in some particular venture or invest in somebody and that meant that ready money was actually, relatively rare. In fact, another big question in Shakespeare’s will is of gold coins given to his godson. Gold coins are a very specific kind of bequest – it’s not just cash that you could use and spend frivolously. It’s a bit like a Godparent leaving premium bonds to a godchild, a sort of expectation that it is a long-term investment rather than just something that you spend as ready cash. So no, not a huge amount of money around: money is put to good use.
REID: So going back to what Shakespeare spent and bought, most of my clips today mention at least one of his investments. My next clip is from Professor Stanley Wells and he can summarise all of these purchases nicely for us.
WELLS: The theatre was quite a profitable profession in Shakespeare’s time. It was very popular and the theatres held a lot of people – anything up to 3,000 people. But sometimes theatres had to close and the actors would be on hard times in periods of plague when, quite rightly, the Government felt that there shouldn’t be large assemblies of people over the fear of spreading the plague even more. Nevertheless, some of the actors, including Shakespeare himself, became quite wealthy. Heminges and Condell, for example, had big-ish houses in London, and Burbage was well-off. It’s very difficult, of course, to convey wealth in terms of modern financial equivalence but Shakespeare himself became wealthy certainly through his profession because theatre made money. He became wealthy enough to buy the second biggest house in Stratford when he was only thirty-three, he bought land in Stratford a couple of years later and a few years after that – in the early Seventeenth Century – he paid a considerable sum of money for the Stratford Tithes (which is an investment in the money that people had to pay the Church and of which he had a 10% stake in). He certainly made money. Whether he made it all through the theatre, we don’t know.
There is this new theory that his father became a rich man through wool-dealing, which might mean that his father helped him to perhaps buy New Place or to buy his shares in the theatre company – because that would have cost money too. When he died he left a good deal of property – it’s very difficult to give a modern equivalent for it. He certainly would have been what we would call a “millionaire” nowadays. Nowadays, if you own a house which has twenty or thirty rooms, you would certainly be thinking that, wouldn’t you? He left money to his daughters, he left plate – that is to say gold and silver – which eventually went to his granddaughter, so he died a relatively wealthy man. Owner of the second biggest house in Stratford; bequeathing silver-plate; bequeathing money; bequeathing land to his daughter, Suzanna; and bequeathing property.
His granddaughter, Elizabeth, became quite a grand lady – she became Lady Elizabeth Barnard. She married somebody who was a knight and she lived in an even greater house in Abington, which was where her husband lived. I sometimes think it’s quite interesting to chart the Shakespeare family residences. There’s Mary Arden’s Farm, where his mother was born (which is in Wilmcote, just outside of Stratford). That’s a relatively smaller farmhouse. Then you come to Stratford, come into Shakespeare’s Birthplace, which is quite a substantial house. Have a look at that now, it has 3 gables – it’s a bigger house than most people live in nowadays. Then he buys the big house, New Place, when he’s only thirty-three: a house with five gables, a house with a courtyard, with orchards, probably with livestock around. Then from New Place, you can go to the house that his granddaughter bought, or that his granddaughter married into, Abington Hall. It’s a succession illustrating the upward social mobility of the period, where people could go from almost rags to decadently riches, and the Shakespeare family followed that trajectory until – in the early Seventeenth Century – you’ve got Shakespeare’s granddaughter being Lady Elizabeth Barnard.
REID: What becomes clear is that Shakespeare was a man who was interested in wealth and investment, and the status that was attached to this. It’s easy to speculate how his father’s fall from grace, as a child, affected Shakespeare’s drive for wealth and recognition. In 1596, the Shakespeare family was granted a coat-of-arms and it’s not clear if it was William who applied for this, as it was awarded to his father, John. Here is a clip from Bob Bearman, again to think about what this investment meant and the status that came with it.
BEARMAN: The coat-of-arms is the first sign we have of the Shakespeare family’s renaissance if you like. We can’t be sure, of course, that it was William Shakespeare behind it because the grant was actually made to his father, John because he was still head of the family. As Shakespeare was in London and because his earnings in the theatre were beginning to make some sort of impression, I think it’s almost certain that he would have been behind it. Whether the actual motives are slightly more complicated – I mean, if William Shakespeare was involved, was he trying to make amends for the extra complication that he’d introduced into the family by marrying so young and not going in for a standard apprenticeship? Or was he trying to comfort his father in some way, who had fallen on hard times, and show the family being re-established? We just don’t know. But I don’t think that Shakespeare was trying to found a dynasty because his son – Hamnet – had just died, so he had no son to inherit this title or this sort-of status of the gentry. He might have supposed, with Anne already in her forties by then, that his wife might die and that he might remarry and have sons and so on – but that’s too calculating, isn’t it? I don’t think he was trying to set up his family as a gentry family, I think that he might have been doing it to bring some comfort to his father.
REID: And how much would that [the coat-of-arms] have cost?
BEARMAN: We don’t know for certain in Shakespeare’s case, but people who were being granted coats-of-arms at that time were paying about £20. It wasn’t a small sum of money; £20 was the annual salary of a schoolmaster, at that time, so you had to have quite a bit of money up your sleeve to actually do that. Of course, a few years after that, they [the Shakespeares] then approached the College of Arms again to quarter the arms of the Ardens as well, so they were obviously thinking that they had another £20 or so, to hand.
REID: So what we’ve got here is an adult Shakespeare as a fairly wealthy man – probably considerably wealthier than most of his peers in the theatre in London. He’s a landowner and a property-owner, and now he’s got a coat-of arm, he’s a gentleman. But what about back home in Stratford-upon-Avon? How did he compare to his peers, here? Back to Bob again.
BEARMAN: Well this is what got me interested in the whole thing in the first place because people had a broad theory that Shakespeare was a very successful actor and playwright and, therefore, he must have made loads and loads of money and died a wealthy man – but nobody actually produced any evidence of that. What appeared to me was totally unconvincing, so what I began by doing was to look at his will, which is the only document that we have for estimating the amount of money that he might have had to hand – or at least that could be raised on his estates – and compared it with wills of other Stratford gentry. Obviously, you can’t be too categoric about that but the number of peculiar bequests in a will is at least an indication of something. I looked at the money bequests in Shakespeare’s will and they come to a comparatively modest £355; £300 of which was settled on his younger daughter in two instalments of £150 each. £150 straight away and then £150 in three years. Only another £55 in money bequests was made to other people and I thought, “That’s not evidence of a lot of money to hand, anyway.” Then I looked at the wills of Stratford town gentry – people like John Combe, who left money bequests of £1600, his brother – Thomas Combe; £1215, Anthony Nash – who there is lots of evidence of connections with Shakespeare – £1170, Richard Woodward; £660 and even William Walford – with a woollen-draper – £610. So in terms of money bequests in the will, Shakespeare ended up in sixth place. Then I looked at where those town gentries stood in the wider circle and the Combes actually, in terms of paying tax, were top – paying £4 value on their land and the Nashs with £2. The real gentry, the Lucys at Charlecote, was paying £30, so Shakespeare hadn’t even got into the ranks of the minor gentry – yet alone the real gentry.
I also began to look at other things like what happened to his daughters. Quite a lot of these town gentries were marrying people of the same social status or made sure that their daughters married well, but when you think “well, what happened to Shakespeare’s daughters,” one of them married the second son of a doctor and the other one [married] the third son of a mercer – neither of whom apparently settled any money or brought any money into the family when they married. Okay, John Hall – who married Susanna– was obviously quite a successful doctor but he went on working as a doctor, he didn’t become a man of independent means. Judith married Thomas Quiney – Quiney was a bit of a “ne’er-do-well” and sort of died in poverty, so you think, “This is not the typical fate of daughters who are married into the gentry.” I then thought perhaps he [Shakespeare] wasn’t that wealthy when he died. Obviously, he was of considerable means. To have left £300 to one of his daughters was an indication that he thought his estate could at least bear that sort of bequest – but it didn’t compare with even the sort of bequests that you find in other, minor town gentry. John Combe was probably the wealthiest in Stratford but he wasn’t one of the local squirearchy [landed gentry] or anything, so I just think that perhaps William Shakespeare didn’t die as wealthy a man as some people would like to think.
REID: What about in comparison to other people in the theatre?
BEARMAN: Well there the picture is rather different because there is a good addition of all wills that were made by people connected with the London theatres. You can see that, if you look at the wills of sharers in the King’s Men – who were the most comparable – you find that although some of them did have some property in London and made reasonably generous bequests, they weren’t as wealthy in that sense as Shakespeare. He may have done a bit better than they did perhaps because he was writing plays as well as being a sharer or perhaps he was just more sensible in the way that he handled his money. The other difference, I suppose, is that Shakespeare was actually maintaining two households: he had his family living in Stratford that he was providing for and he must have been paying for his own expenses in London – whereas his fellow sharers must have been based in London and that’s it. Certainly, there is evidence of him – as far as ordinary fellow sharers were concerned – being slightly more successful, financially, than they were. That’s not including the theatre owners, by the way – they certainly died very wealthy men.
REID: So that takes us to the end of Shakespeare’s life and leads nicely onto my final clip for today’s episode. Let’s have a wee look at how he spent his money at the end of his life and what this can tell us about how he was still earning.
BEARMAN: The interesting thing about all that is that, once he’d bought his share in the Tithes in 1605, there were no further large-scale purchases – which is a bit odd if you think about it because you would think that he’d have been able to keep raising these quite large sums of money, to invest. After that, there’s a definitely a slacking-off and people have suggested that his income was dropping because of plague closures. As well, of course, his output as a writer tended to slacken-off in these years and also quite a few of the plays were written in collaboration with other people, which would have affected his author’s fee. You could argue that he could have been lending his money to people or could have been a mercer adventure or something, investing in one of the trading companies. This is not impossible and some people have suggested it but, obviously, there’s no evidence. The only evidence that we have for the financial situation at the end of his life is his will. If you look at his will there is no evidence of a person with very large sums of money to hand or any large sums of money owing to him because he’d leant money out or any investments in trading companies, and so on – so I think that’s probably not true either. I think that his income was going down but, having said that, I have made a calculation that these investments wouldn’t have earned him much more than £70. We can work out actually what he was getting in way of rent from the properties he bought – so £70, when you compare it with £200 from the theatre, it wasn’t a major source of income or it wasn’t his major source of income while he was still in the theatre. The big question mark is: did he surrender his theatre shares? I think that there’s good evidence that in 1613, for some reason, he sold his shares, which would have meant that there would have been a quite a big fall in his income at the end of his life.
REID: And what is the evidence?
BEARMAN: The reason that we think the shares were sold is that they don’t feature in his will – he didn’t leave them specifically for anybody. It’s possible that it was included in some sort of capsule phrase at the end of his will like “I leave the rest of my estate to my daughter,” but there is no evidence of her owning them either, so the implication is that he did give them up – in which he was giving up a large portion of his income. Again, he might have been ill. He might have been worn out actually writing plays over that period of years or even acting – we just don’t know. But there’s obviously evidence of a withdrawal from the main focus of the theatre. There is this odd thing about the purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613. The Gatehouse, interestingly, was only going to cost him £140 but he was actually £60 short of that sum of money when the deed went through and he had to mortgage the property back for six months, until he could come up with the rest of the money, which sort of suggests that he wasn’t too flush at that point. There are various possibilities as to why he purchased that property. It was bought with three other trustees, which is rather curious, one of whom was John Heminges – who was a fellow sharer in the King’s Men – and to me it suggests that actually, he was going to secure himself a bolthole in London, where he could retain his links with the theatre – because Blackfriars Theatre was right next door to Blackfriars Gatehouse – and that somehow he could go on perhaps writing plays for the company but not actually being a full sharer. We don’t really know why he bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse. He installed a chap called John Robinson in it, who remained there after Shakespeare’s death in a sort of protective tenancy because when the trusteeship passed to another group of trustees, they said that this was allowing for the continuing residency of John Robinson, as arranged by Shakespeare. There was obviously something going on there that we’re not quite sure about.
REID: Well, that’s a perfect end to this episode because the next episode will be asking, “How did Shakespeare die?” We’ll also be covering the subject of his will in a lot more detail so do tune in next week to hear that. You probably noticed that in this episode I had a lot of clips from Bob Bearman and that’s because Bob has a book out next year. The book is called “Shakespeare’s Money: How much did he make and what did this mean?” and will be out in March next year – but is available to pre-order, as we speak.
Thanks for joining me today and thank you to Stanley, Bob, Tara and Liz for speaking to me and, of course, a special thanks to the friends of the Shakespeare Trust, who make this podcast possible."